We, that is people in general, seem to have a compelling desire to label. I am talking specifically about the way we give nicknames to things, nicknames that are adopted by the people, rather than created by some official. I am sure the British are in no way unique, but here naming relates to anything from a building – in London we have the Gherkin and the Walkie Talkie – to events in history such as the Black Death and even to a difficult rock climb in the Peak District nicknamed ‘the Meshuga’ from the Yiddish, meaning ‘crazy’. The compulsion has applied to famous people from Richard the Lionheart to Diana the People’s Princess, as well as to people in and around the family. Anything and anyone is fair game.
In reality, using nicknames is part of our everyday communication. Years ago in our family the woman who lived across the road at No. 50 was known as ‘Mrs Fifty’. Last year in France, we nicknamed our immediate neighbour ‘the Mad Strimmer’. Interestingly, whatever their origins these names are enduring and, forty years on, there remains only one Mrs Fifty.
But while bestowing sobriquets is normal, even seen as reasonable, I don’t always feel flattered when on the receiving end. I am perfectly happy when people use what I see as an appropriate label, referring to me as ‘the Doc’, ‘the Professor’, or even ‘M. le Monde’ [see Secret Newsagent, Greyhares, 9 April 2014]. But being categorised by some ill-judged adjective or description irks me intensely. The problem is that the adjectives so often don’t actually fit, at least as I see it.
It is the case that while adjectives are not necessarily sobriquets, they are designed to sum one up and with repeated usage such labels gain sobriquet status. So, for example, the phrase ‘Bill is lazy’ might in time become ‘Lazy Bill’, especially if there is another Bill in the workplace who, in order to make a distinction, becomes ‘Hard-working Bill’.
So I bridle when I hear, or am told that, someone has described me as ‘charming’and it hurts me when I hear myself referred to as the ‘Mad Professor’, which happened again only last week. For years I found it difficult when people attached to me the adjective ‘eccentric’ and these awkward labels have now been joined by another recruit, but I am hoping that it will soon be jettisoned in favour of an altogether more attractive, newly-discovered, alternative.
The awkward description originated in France where a friend, knowing how few books I had read through my adult years, several times referred to me as inculte, a person who is ‘uneducated’ or ‘uncultured’, at least as far as literature is concerned. Because it reflected an obvious truth I went along with the idea, even occasionally describing myself as inculte. But each time the word rankled. Now, however, I have found an altogether more accurate and acceptable alternative soubriquet. How about ‘Joe the Opsimath’?
For the first time in years and for pleasure rather than as an obligation, I decided to read some fiction; in English rather than my now more customary French. The book, The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, was given to me by a close friend; I imagine for good reason. It fictionalises the Queen’s late discovery of the joy of reading, and is short, ingenious and fun. For most of her reign, she has had neither an interest in, nor time for novels. But then, in her late eighties, she gets bitten by the reading bug and starts to read more and more, to the extent that she begins to overlook her stately duties. As a product of her increasingly rapacious reading, she announces the discovery of a word to describe exactly what she is up to. She is, she declares, an opsimath: a person who learns or begins to learn, late in life. The discovery of a new word which accurately described what was happening to her was a pleasure for her and, of course, it also applies to me. Opsimath – the word is so much more appealing than inculte, and ironically, just as it applies to me now, so it did when a ‘late developer’ as a child.
So, on my gravestone or better still, sooner, perhaps I might be referred to in a soubriquet-sort of way, as Joe the Opsimath.